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Prisoner abuse, deaths raise questions for new DOC secretary

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Reports of a troubled prison system rocked the state's Department of Corrections. It looked like there would be legislative changes made this year, but that didn't end up happening. This week there were more prison guard arrests.

The arrests come about a month after three other corrections employees were arrested in connection with a prison inmate murder plot. Those employees were also linked to the Ku Klux Klan and the alleged victim was a black man.

Donald Sims was one of two Columbia Correctional guards arrested Tuesday accused of beating inmate Shurick Lewis at Columbia Correction Institution.

It's another mark against the state's troubled prison system. New Corrections Secretary Julie Jones faced tough questions during the legislative session after multiple reports of prisoner abuse and deaths.

Legislative action looking to correct the problems failed this year after session turned chaotic and ended early. Measures including forming an oversight commission and increasing penalties for guards failed to clear both chambers.

Barney Bishop, with the Florida Smart Justice Alliance, said he thinks the relatively new secretary needs some time.

"She's only been here for about four months now," Bishop said. "We need to give her a chance, and we've always given every new secretary of every agency a chance."

The senator who was leading the charge on prison reform said they won't stop trying to fix the department.

"Look how far we've come with just actually the Senate's criminal justice committee diving in and finding the things involved," Sen. Greg Evers said.

Prison reform advocate Allison Defoor said at the very least, people are aware of the problems now.

"Everybody is serious about Florida's governance; understands that this thing's broken," Defoor said. "Now we're just talking solutions, and a year or two ago that wasn't the case."

Defoor said it took a while for the system to dig a hole this big, and it will take a while to get out of it.